Volver vs. volverse

The verb volver(se) offers another fine example of the so-called 'Se de matización' or 'Se aspectual'.

As discussed previously, a number of verbs have a pronominal form whose meaning differs only slightly from the non-pronominal version; these include esperarse, salirse, estarse, venirse, morirse, caerse, bajarse, imaginarse, olvidarse, comerse, saberse, despertarse and pasarse, among others.

As noted in A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish, "The nuance added by pronominalization is sometimes very subtle. The ability to distinguish correctly between pairs like bajar/bajarse 'to descend'/ 'to get down/out', llegar/llegarse 'to arrive'/'to approach' or traer/traerse 'to bring' is the mark of a true master of idiomatic Spanish".1

Bear in mind that the pronominal forms of all of these verbs are far more common in spoken Spanish; this may be attributed to the fact that the 'se aspectual/de matización' tends to add a subjective touch, while in written Spanish the author tends to stick to straight facts.


1) When used intransitively, volverse generally focuses on the act of heading off back to the point of origin and may denote a premature or unplanned return. When the person hasn't actually reached their destination, it may be translated as 'to turn back'. The non-pronominal form is more neutral and simply states that someone returned back to where they left from previously, without alluding to possible reasons or decision. In this sense it is similar to salirse or venirse.

"'Volver' implica un corte entre las dos acciones y resalta el destino del movimiento. [...] 'Volverse' concibe el movimiento como un todo y enfatiza el giro o cambio de dirección del movimiento".1


-Juan volvió de Barcelona a los dos meses [Estuvo de vuelta a los dos meses]

→Juan se volvió de Barcelona a los dos meses [Sounds like he came back before time; spontaneously; se marchó a casa]


-Tras las manifestaciones, las mujeres (sevolvieron a sus trabajos y a sus casas, donde los cacharros seguían sin fregar y los culos sin limpiar [With the 'Se' it emphasizes the abandonment of the activity and the departure from the place of the protest; ≈se marcharon y volvieron a casa]


-Lo siento pero tendrás que volver mañana; ahora estoy ocupado [Here, the 'Se' wouldn't sound natural since there is no premature or spontaneous return and the person is not suggesting 'leaving' but rather 'coming back']


-Se volvió a mitad de camino [He turned back]

-Me volví antes de llegar [I turned back]

-Nos hemos vuelto porque empezaba a llover [We turned back/came back early]



2) Volver can also be used transitively. In this case, it is similar to verbs like levantar(se) in that, when used pronominally, it has a somewhat reflexive meaning if the subject is animate and the agent

-Juan volvió la cabeza [For use of article for body parts -read more]

Se volvió y me miró a los ojos [Animate subject turning round]


-Juan volvió la hoja del libro

→Con el viento se volvió la hoja del libro —[Here the subject is clearly not the agent and the pronominal form is in no way reflexive -some call this the 'Se instransitivador']


-Juan volvió las tornas 

Se han vuelto las tornas [Here the 'Se' may be considered passive reflexive or 'voz media' with the 'Se intransitivador'; i.e. the tables have been turned or the tables have turned; as discussed previously, when an already pronominal verb is used in the passive reflexive there may be ambiguity]


3) Don't forget that volverse is also used pronominally as a verb of change –discussed previously.

-Me estás volviendo loco

Se volvió loco

→Su tono se volvió amenazante


4) Finally, when pronominal verbs are used along with the construction volver a+infinitivo, just like other perífrasis verbales such as 'tener que+infinitivo', 'acabar de+infinitivo', etc., the atonic pronoun can either go before volver or after the pronominal verb; this mustn't be confused with volverse –see discussion.

 Volvió a sentarse  ↔ Se volvió a sentar

 Volví a equivocarme ↔ Me volví a equivocar 

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